Avian Winter Wooing
By Paul Hicks
Recently, I watched a group of ducks on Long Island Sound that were shaking their heads repeatedly and wondered what was bothering them. Thanks to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, I discovered that I had been witnessing one of various types of duck courtship displays. Most species of ducks find a new mate each year during the winter months. This differs from the mating behavior of song birds that wait until the spring breeding season to choose their mates.
Females of all duck species select their mates based on their plumage, displays, and other factors. According to the experts, male Mallards and Black ducks, common in our area, both shake or bob their heads as well as raise themselves up from the water to attract female attention. The Common Goldeneye goes one better with a routine that includes a head-throw and kick. It is rivaled by the salute-curtsey moves of the Red-breasted Merganser.
Canada (not “Canadian”) geese mate for life and start breeding when they are 2 years old. The male begins by dipping his neck up and down in a bobbing motion as he approaches a female. If the female follows the male, it means she has accepted him as a partner. If she moves away from him, or does not participate in the head bobbing, it means she has rejected him.
Most swans also mate for life, including the Mute swan species that is most commonly seen in this area. When they reach breeding age (around 2), they also tend to find a mate in the winter. One swan enthusiast wrote this colorful description of their courtship ritual:
“With their bodies almost side-by-side, they will start dipping their heads below the water surface and then pulling them back out and preening themselves…Again and again, they will dip their heads and preen themselves, often getting faster and faster…The next stage is that the two swans will start to synchronize their actions, so they reach a stage where they’re acting in unison …
“They will stare at each other during the up and down motions of the necks and will sometimes raise both heads together at the same time to look at each other with sideways glances as they turn their heads from side to side. Again, this can continue for a few minutes, until there comes a time when the necks actually start to intertwine with each other’s. One swan will then drape its neck over its partner’s.”
Winter wooing is not confined to waterfowl. Both male and female Red-tailed hawks, our most common birds of prey, perform dramatic aerial courtship rituals in mid-winter. As one observer wrote:
“Red-tailed hawks begin their courtship flights by circling slowly at heights of 1,000 feet or more. The male approaches the female from above, touching her briefly. This sets off a series of tumbles and dives at speeds of nearly 100 miles per hour. They may lock bills or talons, and the male may pass food to the female. When the female touches down on a perch the male spirals down to join her and mating takes place.”
There are many pairs of Red-tails in this vicinity, including a number that can be seen along the parkways, but the best places to watch the aerial displays may be on the county golf courses. Among the vantage points for seeing swans and duck courtship rituals are the Mill Pond on Kirby Lane and Milton Harbor.